With each heartbeat, the heart contracts (or squeezes) and relaxes. Every contraction pushes blood out of the two pumping chambers (ventricles). When the heart relaxes, the ventricles refill with blood. The ejection fraction (EF) refers to the amount, or percentage, of blood that is pumped (or ejected) out of the ventricles with each contraction. This percentage, or EF number, helps your health care provider determine how your heart is functioning.
A normal heart pumps just over half the heart's volume of blood with each beat – a normal EF is 50 to 75 percent.
EF is often measured by a simple, painless test called an echocardiogram. A special imaging machine uses sound waves to create a videotaped image of the heart, showing the four chambers of the heart, the valves and how well the heart is pumping.
Other tests used to measure EF include cardiac catheterization, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and nuclear medicine scans.
A Low EF
A low EF number suggests problems with the heart's pumping function and may be associated with symptoms of heart failure. This is a condition where the heart does not pump enough blood to the rest of the body. However, with treatment, many people live well with heart failure. If you have a low EF number, it is important that you recognize the signs of heart failure, which may include:
- Fatigue (feeling tired all the time)
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the feet
A low EF can also be associated with abnormal heart rhythms, which can make your heart pump even less effectively. If you have heart disease, your doctor will check your EF periodically, closely monitoring your condition.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- Should I be concerned with my EF number?
- Do I need to have my EF rechecked? (And when?)
- Is there anything I should do about my EF?
- What else can I do to monitor my heart health?
- Do I need additional tests or treatments?
- Do I need to see another doctor who specializes in heart rhythm problems?
Many people who have a reduced EF can benefit from a medical device called an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). An ICD is a pacemaker-like device that treats ventricular fibrillation (VF) and ventricular tachycardia (VT), the dangerous heart rhythms that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).
Several large studies have shown that ICDs are able to prevent SCA in those people whose heart muscle, and its pumping ability, is damaged. People in the studies had an ejection fraction (EF) of 35-40% or below. It was shown that survival rates were significantly higher for people with ICDs compared to those who received only traditional medical care.
Improving your EF
Depending on your EF number, your doctor may make recommendations to help you improve your EF. In some cases, medication may be prescribed. There are also other things you can do to improve how you feel.
- Limit Salt – Limiting salt (sodium) to 2,000 mg or less a day is an important part of maintaining a healthy heart and treating heart failure. With a low EF, your kidneys get less blood than they should. This makes them unable to rid the body of excess water and salt. Eating too much salt can lead to even more fluid buildup. It also increases your blood pressure, which makes an already weakened heart work harder.
- Manage Your Fluids – With a low EF, blood can back up in your lungs and force fluid into the breathing spaces,making it difficult to breathe. Excess fluid can also cause weight gain and swelling. Your doctor will recommend the amount of fluids you should have daily.
- Exercise Regularly – Exercise can help strengthen your heart and improve how well it pumps blood to the rest of the body. All it takes is 30 minutes a day of activity, even if that activity is walking. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you.
Treating Low EF
Many people who have a reduced EF can benefit from a medical device called an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). An ICD is a pacemaker-like device that treats ventricular fibrillation (VF) and ventribular tachycardia (VT), the deadly heart rhythm that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).
Several studies have been done to see if ICDs could help prevent SCA in those people whose heart muscle, and its pumping ability, is damaged. People in the studies had an ejection fraction (EF) of 35-40% or below. It was shown that survival rates were significantly higher for people with ICDs compared to those who received only traditional medical care.